Rift is one of the biggest bets in video game history. Trion Worlds has been building the fantasy role-playing online game world for almost five years and has raised more than $100 million to build the game and the dynamic online platform that hosts it. The game will finally debut on March 1 in North America and March 4 in Europe. The beta has been out for a while and Trion Worlds announced Thursday that more than 1 million players have registered to play it. Yesterday, the players who pre-ordered the game started playing in advance of the launch date.

To put the registrations in perspective, that’s about how many users Trion would need to generate $180 million in subscription revenues a year, in addition to selling copies of the initial game. To topple the market leader, World of WarCraft, Trion would need to get more than 12 million paying subscribers a year. That’s a tall order, but Trion chief executive Lars Buttler has focused on making a game with the highest quality and a number of new innovations in a bid to outdo WoW. If anyone can topple WoW — and many have died trying — they get a license to print money.

The big feature of Rift is that it is dynamic. Users can log in one day and find that their beautiful city or bucolic town is under an attack via a “rift,” or a hole in the fabric of the world through which enemy forces can invade. As the rifts open up, the players have to band together and, like people helping each other in a fire brigade, put out the fires one by one. The world can thus change more often than its rival, World of WarCraft, and offer endless variations of content.

We caught up with Buttler at Trion’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.


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VB: You are getting close to being done.

LB: Yes. March 1st is the North American retail street date. March 4th in Europe. We also have a head start on February 24th for everybody who pre ordered the game and we have the beta going. So we are actually in the middle of launching. You can’t really say that March 1st is the launch anymore. You should think about how it starts and then keeps continuing as we add more content.

VB: So do you have anything to disclose — like how many people are in the beta?

LB: (We now know there are a million registrations). I mean I can tell you that for a Western online game beta, we have a historic first in many ways for a new game. We are still in beta but the audience is seeing much more responsiveness on our side than you have typically seen. We have issued a lot of patch notes, interacted with people on the forums, responded to the feedback. We want to demonstrate in beta what a live game should be like as you play it and as we run it.

A real massively multiplayer online game should have epic events that bring people together. It should have unexpected things happen, and it should also react and respond to what people like or dislike. This has always been part of what we discussed when we said what a premium video game franchise should look like in the connected world. We always had a big component of this being truly dynamic, a world that changes as you play it. We are proving  in the beta that we can open up a “rift” in the world and completely change the environment.

VB: What are some examples of what is happening n the world?

LB: There is so much happening. We introduced the automatic broadcasting of achievements out of the game into the social world, on services such as Twitter. This was always something we said a top video game for the connected era should have. People spend hours and hours in the world and their achievements and their status in the world is really important to them. And we always felt that it’s not only important to people they meet in the game but to their larger social circles and their friends. So we have integrated an automated Twitter function. If you go to Twitter and you look at number sign Rift (#riftfeed), you see about ten tweets a second out of the game. You basically tweet your achievement and you can also tweet a screenshot and a picture with it automatically.

VB: Do you use another company’s technology for that or did you guys do that in-house?

LB: We did it all in-house. And we use Twitter’s platform. This is going extremely well. So you know we have huge numbers of people playing, and they talk to their friends obviously. Word of mouth is incredibly important to us. And now they also tweet to all their friends about it.

At the end of the day, we are a new company with a new idea and we decided to make the beta so big and so open because we have a terrific product and we want people to know, and we want people to talk about it, and we want people to tweet about it. So typically betas have been small and people had to pre-order the games to even get into the betas apart from the last push and open beta. Our beta events after the third or fourth waves of people have been so big, there has been virtually no barrier to get into it, and we don’t believe in keeping anything secret. If you have a great product, let people experience it.

VB: And the crowds have not hurt the game’s performance?

LB: The architecture is holding up with the live events. These are all invasions, live invasions going on in the world where someone opens a rift and all of these beings from another world invade. There are so many players in one place. This is massively social. It’s so epic.

VB: What sort of customers are in the beta? Are they WoW players?

LB: That is a very good question; I think we have everybody in the game. We have people who are WoW players, EverQuest players, Lord of the Rings Online players, and Ultima Online players.

There are also lots of new players who come to us from more of the free-to-play audience and are trying their first real high-quality game. It goes across the board.

VB: And are you resetting the game after the beta is over, which means all the players start over?

LB: Yes, so when Head Start begins on February 24th, everybody starts from scratch to be fair to the people who didn’t have the time or who didn’t participate in the beta. It will cause some hardships. I say this smiling because some people are already in love with their characters and with their achievements. I think everybody is cool with it, as it is also standard procedure in MMOs.

VB: And what else are you doing to make sure it takes off? How are you advertising?

LB: I am sure you saw the ad that went incredibly viral and was discussed all over the internet. It was a television ad, but it was essentially discussed everywhere. It shows the opening of the Rift and then some dramatic in-game footage, and then it ends. So this was obviously discussed everywhere and it said, “We are not in Azeroth anymore.” (That’s a reference to the world in World of WarCraft).

VB: It went viral because it mentioned Azeroth?

LB: Yes, exactly. I mean obviously because our world looks great and it says we are in a different world and we are maybe in a more dangerous place. People started to send it around to comment on it, tweet about it, Facebook about it, and so yes so we have TV ads running now on Sci-Fi Channel, on G4 on Adult Swim. It is all starting now. The Sci-Fi Channel ads started a while ago because they are a close partner of ours and the rest of the networks that are relevant to reach out. But TV is a small percentage of our advertising. The bulk is online advertising, which gives us the ability to very clearly measure our customer acquisition cost. Our net to acquire customers is the entire internet space. We are not bound to a particular social network or any particular site. We can advertise wherever our audience is, and we are actually doing it right now. We are casting a very wide net and we measure everything. I mean it is getting cheaper and cheaper to acquire people, which means they must like the game and we are finding the right sites to advertise on, which is fantastic.

Also, our Facebook site is growing exponentially so we are using social networking incredibly creatively and in a very powerful way. But we have more and more fan sites, very strong fan sites in North America, in France, in Germany, in the UK. Every week we have more, and I can tell you honestly that all of this exceeds our own expectations and goals that we set at the beginning. Every single item is exceeding our expectations.

VB: You are ready for lots of people to come on?

LB: We did a big beta event, let lots of people play, and that was a big stress test for all of us. We collected every bit of feedback that we could and then we went to work. What we could fix quickly, we fixed during the beta. And what took a little more thinking or a little more engineering we basically fixed in between betas. We are trying to preserve an absolute balance in the game. In large events, the balancing can’t be tested except with hundreds of thousands of people.

Our platform is built to allow us to react quickly, and the team is so focused on responsiveness and on delivering the best consumer experience, I think the betas allowed us not only to create a strong following for the game but also to create friends and followers of the company of Trion.

VB: What does it take to get users excited?

LB: We believe there is kind of recipe to create a hit franchise premium game. For 2011 and beyond, what you still need to have is a big game draw. Whether you are doing a role-playing game, strategy, action, shooter — you still have to have premium quality. It has to be complete in terms of game systems. It has to have highly polished game play, stunning visuals, and online play.

But then on top of it, we believe the games need to be fully dynamic. This means the game is constantly evolving, getting better. The game can be unpredictably exciting and extremely responsive to what users want. That has a lot to do with the technology choices we made and the dedication of our team. There are so many aspects to being a dynamic game. We believe a big online game has to be massively social. Your game architecture has to accommodate massive events. People get an incredible kick out of these epic events. You should have digital revenue sources and you should have a clear cross-platform strategy.

VB: Do you want to introduce digital revenues in this game, like selling virtual goods?

LB: It’s not really something that we want to aggressively pursue at the beginning just because you buy the game and you subscribe to it. But in agreement with our audience, as they want more things without disturbing the game balance, there will be additional opportunities to buy digital goods just like other games have done. But we clearly don’t want to destroy the high quality user base and audience and experience that we have for Rift right now.

VB: You have said there is a shallow way to connect people and a deep way?

LB: At the end of the day, there is absolutely no ignoring the fact that gaming is literally going through a revolution. You cannot call this anything else I think at this point. And it is happening in casual games first because it is always happening in casual games first; it is easier to pull off. There are shorter development cycles and you can experiment more. But this change is also happening at the deep end of gaming, the premium games, the video games, the core console games. You have all these stand-alone game publishers trying to adapt to online. Then you have new platforms like Facebook and mobile. We have come along to create content for the connected world, and that does not mean the PC only. The industry is now creating content for every connected device. Games will stay the same, but they will be distributed in completely different ways. They can be downloaded or streamed. It’s still the same game. If you are making a game in 2011, don’t even try to do it without the connected strategy. You need quality, great graphics, great game play, and you need to be connected.

VB: Where do you go next?

LB: The beauty is that Rift is a great showcase for our platform, but it is just the first product. We go much further in exploiting our platform with End of Nations, where we actually create a connected strategy game franchise. And we are working on a third major game in our partnership with Sci-Fi. We are seeing that the disruption of the game industry is coming to the deep end of gaming where we are focused. If you are building a AAA gaming franchise for the connected era, you want to use the Trion platform. We have filed for a dozen patents in this space, not  just for video games but for creating dynamic synthetic worlds.

VB: Have you said how much you’ve spent? The company has raised more than $100 million.

LB: No. I have heard it said that it is a $50 million game. That is out there in the public. I did say that. Our other games leverage our platform. We have about 300 people and about 120 worked on the core Rift team. There is significant outsourcing across the globe too.

VB: And you have not gone on the record as saying you are doing a World of WarCraft killer?

LB: I have never said that. We will have nothing to do with that. We are intrinsically motivated to build the best product we could possibly build. As a matter of fact, I think that our mission as a company, our core purpose is to deliver the most exciting, most emotionally engaging entertainment experience in the world. I mean that doesn’t include killing anybody or fighting anybody else. If we meet our goal, that takes care of the economic equation. You don’t think about the economics first, but the quality first. If you start the other way around, you can fall flat.

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